Two months after the Colorado Attorney General's Office released a report concluding that Aurora police have a pattern and practice of excessive force and racially-based law enforcement, a federal judge allowed a man to incorporate the report's findings into his own excessive force claims against the city.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Scott T. Varholak on Thursday granted Andre Williams' request to amend his federal lawsuit against the city itself and five individual officers. The decision comes nearly nine months after another judge dismissed Williams' liability claim against the city, saying at the time that Williams had failed to plausibly allege that Aurora was indifferent to recurring constitutional violations.
But the attorney general's findings were released in mid-September, "so there’s no way for plaintiff to have known that report would be filed or incorporated into the allegations," Varholak said.
The Attorney General's Office gained its authority for the investigation following the enactment of comprehensive police accountability legislation in 2020. Protests against the slayings of George Floyd in Minnesota and Elijah McClain in Aurora prompted lawmakers to pursue a sweeping set of reforms. The report found that both the Aurora police and fire departments had a practice of violating the federal and state constitutions, along with disproportionate use of force against Black people.
"We saw a pattern of officers 'taking subjects to the ground' quickly, often for minor reasons. We found this behavior arises out of a perceived need to immediately take control of situations and establish dominance in interactions with members of the community," the report said. "While we observed some encounters handled with patience and empathy, other encounters began with officers behaving aggressively and quickly escalating to force."
Williams initially filed his lawsuit in September 2019, with one excessive force claim against five police officers and two claims against the city — that it failed to provide annual seizure-related training to its officers pursuant to a prior legal settlement and that it maintained policies and customs that led to violations of constitutional rights.
His encounter with police took place after an automobile accident when Williams allegedly suffered a seizure that noticeably affected his behavior. As a result, he stood non-responsively on a tow truck bed while Officer Dominic Marziano ordered him down.
"I have given you lawful orders. Get off the truck or your will go to jail,” Marziano said, according to body-worn camera footage. The video did not depict any offer of medical assistance from Marziano.
Williams eventually climbed down, which is when Marziano and other officers grabbed, tackled, punched and tased him. Williams reportedly had another seizure, to which Marziano reponded by telling Williams to "f—ing relax, dude." Police then charged Williams with resisting arrest and obstructing a peace officer.
On March 16, U.S. District Court Judge Raymond P. Moore ruled that the lawsuit could proceed against the officers, but he dismissed Williams' claims against Aurora.
The lawsuit "lacks allegations showing that the city’s training program caused incidents involving a constitutional rights violation, or that the city should have been substantially certain a constitutional violation would occur," Moore wrote at the time.
Shortly after the report's release, Williams moved to amend his allegations. Specifically, he cited findings that Aurora police were quick to take people to the ground, would repeatedly tell people to "stop resisting" even if suspects did not appear to be resisting, and used disproportionate amounts of force. All of those elements, he argued, were factors in his case.
"The abuse that Mr. Williams suffered was just another example of Aurora’s pattern and practice of illegal force on non-threatening, non-violent members of the community. The beatdown that Mr. Williams suffered was the inevitable result of Aurora’s unconstitutional police practices and amending the complaint as proposed would not be futile," wrote his attorneys.
The city responded that it was still insufficient for Williams, who is Black, to claim a pattern of racially-motivated use of force by simply pointing to "unrelated and substantially different incidents of alleged excessive force involving people of color."
Varholak said the city may respond to Williams' additional allegations through another motion to dismiss.
Last month, the city and Attorney General Phil Weiser announced a consent decree to address the shortcomings identified in the investigation. The agreement stipulates that Aurora will, among other things, create a culture that prioritizes de-escalation and seek to limit the use of force in low-level offenses, such as failing to obey lawful orders. The parties have since officially entered into the decree.
The case is Williams v. City of Aurora et al.